First Nations Want to Be Economic Players, Not Wards: Partnerships may be key to self-sufficiency

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel


Amidst national sovereignty and foreign investment arguments, the Potash Corporation in Saskatchewan issue speaks to a larger story of First Nation empowerment.
The former government-owned corporation, and valuable company on the Canadian stock market, was subject to a hostile takeover bid from BHP Billiton, an Australian-based company. Some were concerned that 53 per cent of the world’s potash resources is in Saskatchewan. Potash, which is used in fertilizer and connected to food production, is seen as a vital strategic resource. In the end, Ottawa prevented the takeover as the takeover was not deemed to be a “net benefit” to Canada.
Missing from news reports was word that a white knight bidder may have emerged in the form of the Indigenous Potash Group (IPG), a First Nation group which had ostensibly raised $25 billion to invest in Potash Corporation to fend off the hostile takeover. According to Forbes and Manhattan, a merchant bank involved in finding investors on behalf of the IPG, the bid’s credibility was assured.
Beyond the foreign ownership question and how serious this bid was, even the mention of such an attempt involving an Aboriginal organization, provides an emerging symbol of the growing influence of Aboriginal business and capital.
Indigenous communities are coming together and understanding their role is within the Canadian economy, not outside it. There is potential for Aboriginal conglomerates and investors to be leaders in Canadian industry.
First Nations are discovering the key to lasting success is to be active players themselves, not just passive recipients of royalties for developments on their lands.
A group of 22 Ontario-based Native communities formed the Lake Huron Anishinabek Transmission Co. The group plans to take advantage of Hydro One’s plans for 20 new transmission projects worth $2.3 billion.
Ermineskin Cree Nation, a Hobbema-area First Nation in Alberta, signed a deal in April of this year to engage in a joint venture with a resource company to drill for oil and gas. Beyond royalties and jobs for band members, the venture will develop oil and gas development knowledge with First Nations. This know-how allows the indigenous community to develop oil and gas reserves on its own in other areas. So, the venture advances band self-sufficiency.
Joint ventures and partnerships are the way forward for many Native communities. The dream of self-government for First Nations requires a firm vision for the future. Paying for government and public services as well as building public service capacity will require significant investments. With the reality many First Nations in Canada have populations that qualify them as villages and towns in the non-Aboriginal context, it makes sense for First Nations to seek partnerships. Tony Penikett, a former Yukon premier and Aboriginal negotiator, wrote in Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia that due to size, many First Nations lack viable economies and social systems. Partnerships may help mitigate this, he wrote. If First Nations seek freedom from the Indian Act, they must find ways to be economically autonomous now to make the move credible.
A group of Alberta First Nations formed a corporation aiming to build and run their own oil upgrader and refinery near Edmonton. The anticipated annual profits of $300 million would be divided among participating bands for economic development, including retail partnerships.
Indigenous communities wondered why they had to be wards, not players. At the same time, First Nations should not forget true economic prosperity will not come without freedom from the Indian Act, which involves lessening land tenure restrictions. Whitecap Dakota First Nation is a leader in the IPG but achieved economic success through opting into the First Nations Land Management Act, which removes bands from land management provisions of the Indian Act.
Historically, indigenous peoples widely engaged in economic activities. The Indian Act and reserve system stopped that. It’s time for First Nations to continue where they left off.